Mr. Speaker, I rise on a question of privilege for the first time, as you know. In accordance with our Standing Orders, I sent to you today, at 12:48 p.m., within the prescribed time, the following letter:
I hereby give notice that I intend to raise a question of privilege today at the end of routine proceedings. It is based on my belief that my right to freely perform my duties as a member of Parliament, in the Standing Committee on Finance, was impeded by the intentional conduct of certain members who were partying just outside the door of the parliamentary committee. I had the opportunity, as you know, to ask you to observe the situation when you came to see us in that regard in committee yesterday evening. In my opinion, Mr. Speaker, this is a prima facie case of contempt of this House and a breach of my privilege as a member. Should you concur, I am prepared to move a motion.
I will add some context for my intervention, Mr. Speaker. We are in the middle of closure and the government, together with the Liberal Party, is attempting to use time allocation to cut off a debate. Part of their strategy was to impose a limit of four hours yesterday for debate on an important bill to create a new and very important tax on all Canadians. Pursuant to an order of this House, this bill was to be studied for four hours.
Last night, at the request of the House, the Standing Committee on Finance met for clause by clause study of Bill C-62, An Act to amend the Excise Tax Act.
In the middle of our deliberations, one of the political parties in this House had organized a party in the corridor outside the meeting room. An interpreter with 40 years of experience told me that he had never seen such a thing. This was an unprecedented case of us not being able to do our job as parliamentarians. Our primary duty is to ensure that the standing orders are adhered to in the best interests of the public, so that we can carry out our duties as elected members of Parliament in this House. But last night, because there were loudspeakers literally right beside the door, our parliamentary committee chair—whom I would like to acknowledge, as he is someone who usually does a very good job—was forced—yes, you can applaud, because he does a good job—to rise and suspend the sitting because it was impossible for us to work.
The first issue here has to do with the four hours we were given. Mr. Speaker, you know this, since I brought it up when we saw each other. You came and saw it for yourself. We often hear the Speaker tell the House that he does not always hear what goes on in parliamentary committees, but last night your eyes and ears could see and hear the same thing as ours, that it had become impossible to do our job. You were kind enough to point out a room that we could use in the basement. The interpreters and the other officials from the Department of Finance followed us, but the main problem is that once we arrived, we had already lost more than half an hour of the four hours that had been allocated.
Mr. Speaker, there is a second point that is very important. For a few years now, the Supreme Court of Canada has been using preparatory work, especially for constitutional matters. In the past, Canadian courts were reluctant to use preparatory work, such as transcriptions of the debates in the House. However, for constitutional matters, for specific and for increasingly general matters, these are used to make assumptions about and to get a better understanding of the intentions of the legislator during the preparatory work. This is particularly important for matters related to aboriginal rights.
Yesterday evening, the government moved to adopt all of the clauses. We had already been informed by our chair that the amendment requested by the first nations, who wanted to add a schedule to the bill, could not come into play until the clauses had been adopted.
Once that was done, my first motion called for consideration of the schedule concerning aboriginal peoples. I immediately indicated that I would have to raise a point of order.
Mr. Speaker, I hope that I have your full attention, because the point I am raising concerns you personally.
There is a second element to this issue that has to do with aboriginal rights. This is a constitutional issue that will have a bearing on your decision. As I emphasized at the outset, there is no precedent for the matter before you. The second point will be raised not as a question of privilege like this one, but as a point of order. The issue is whether one of your closest aides, who claimed she was acting as Speaker, not as a representative of the Speaker but as Speaker in accordance with our standing orders, had the necessary authority to reject the schedule proposed by our party yesterday evening.
This is at the heart of a constitutional debate. Last night's committee proceedings are sure to end up in the Supreme Court of Canada. Aboriginal groups who were there indicated their intention to make sure of that. My colleague has already mentioned that these groups intend to very clearly express their opposition to this attempt to deny them their rights.
It is crucial that in your deliberations you recognize this as a unique situation. Yesterday evening, being deprived of the full four hours granted by order of this House, because of the matter I raise in my question of privilege, I was not heard. The chair interpreted the four hours as being four consecutive hours on the clock. We began at 5:53 p.m., and as far as he was concerned, at 9:53 p.m., the four hours were up, notwithstanding the fact that we had just lost more than 30 minutes of our meeting.
To help you in your deliberations, Mr. Speaker, allow me to suggest that you reflect on the following hypothesis. If, in a similar situation, the doors had been locked—not just because of the noise that made our work impossible and not just for 30 minutes, but for four hours—would you hesitate to say that the privileges of the hon. members of this House had been violated? I respectfully submit that the ruling would be obvious. You would have no choice but to rule that the privileges of the hon. members of this House had been violated.
The aboriginal groups that had asked us to propose an amendment by adding a schedule to the bill respecting their constitutional right to a point of sale exemption are now deprived of an amendment in their favour because it was impossible for us to do our work. We lost half an hour. I mention that because this is a unique and unfair situation.
As far as we are concerned, Mr. Speaker, your primary duty is to ensure the orderly conduct of the business in this House and to supervise the ability of the elected members to do their work. You are the guardian of our interests. You are the one we have chosen to safeguard our ability to act on behalf of the people who elect us to this place.
The Standing Orders are composed of a set of rules that we have given ourselves. When I saw the decision of the chair of the committee, who chose to ignore the fact that we did not get our four hours of deliberations as clearly mandated by this House, I drafted, as an amendment at report stage, an amendment that would add an 11th schedule to Bill C-62.
This schedule would have granted first nations the exemption they are calling for.
So imagine my surprise when, in spite of Standing Order 66(2) of the rules governing this House, not you, Mr. Speaker, but one of your closest aides, Ms. Labrecque-Riel, refused to consider this amendment.
To clearly understand why I am saying that the question of privilege and the point of order are cumulative rather than sequential, to put it simply, as a result of the refusal to grant us the four hours ordered by this House, that was the only means at our disposal to have the motion taken into consideration. I thought it was at least worth a try. However, I think it is worth reading Standing Order 76.1(2) in its entirety.
If, not later than the sitting day prior to the consideration of the report stage of a bill that has been read a second time, written notice is given of any motion to amend, delete, insert or restore any clause in a bill, it shall be printed on the notice paper. [That is fine, so far.] When the same amendment is put on notice by more than one member, that notice shall be printed once, under the name of each member who has submitted it.
That is the part that concerns us here today.
I would point out right away what you know better than anyone: this section is not talking about the Speaker's office, which could mean you or one of your close aides, but rather it refers to you specifically, the Speaker. It continues:
If the Speaker decides that an amendment is out of order, it shall be returned to the member without having appeared on the Notice Paper.
Just by reading the document—the first rule of interpretation is to read the document—it is very clear that this is an intuitu personae power. It is your responsibility and yours alone. Delegatus non potest delegare. This House gave you the authority to act on our behalf, and we trust you to act in our best interests, but we have never authorized anyone to act on your behalf. The person or body that gave you the power is the only one that can delegate it or allow it to be delegated. We can search all we like in the rules governing this House, but there is no indication that a power that you have been granted, Mr. Speaker, can be delegated to someone else; the power is intrinsic to one individual, namely, yourself.
Given that we are dealing with an exception to the general authority of this House to take action, to debate and to have the time to consult, and that an attempt is being made to circumvent the usual rules, I respectfully submit that your interpretation must be very restrictive. If one of your closest aides attempts to convince you that this restrictive interpretation means that you must further restrict the rights of members, allow me to suggest that your aides are misleading you. A restrictive interpretation is based on a clear rule of interpretation, one established long ago. When the objective is to restrict certain rights, the authority resulting from this capacity to restrict a right must be interpreted on a case-by-case basis as being restrictive, and each step must be followed.
Yesterday, we were ordered to spend only four hours studying a bill of vital importance to people across the country, especially those in Ontario and British Columbia.
This will also have a significant impact on aboriginal peoples whose representatives came before the committee yesterday. The aboriginal peoples were invited by the New Democratic Party that very day. They were able to organize themselves and give a short presentation yesterday evening.
However, because of the incidents mentioned in the letter I sent you yesterday, we did not have the full four hours. Given that the allocation of the four hours was an exception, the rules that apply to it must be given a restrictive interpretation. In addition, you must first protect the right of parliamentarians to be heard and to exercise their free will within the institutions of this Parliament.
I am not blaming any of our colleagues for having assigned the committee a meeting room adjacent to one where a party was being held. That is not my purpose. The issue is the fact that it was not possible to present the motion regarding the amendment to protect aboriginal rights.
The committee chair said that even though we had been given four hours, those 30 minutes were lost, and the amendment could no longer be moved. The chair made that decision, even though at the beginning of the meeting, he had said that we could move an amendment to add a schedule only after we passed the bill that was introduced by the government. I do not need to point out that schedules are found at the end of a bill.
I am asking you to consider these two things, not separately or one after the other, but together.
I ask you to consider that when we are talking about an exception to a general rule, we must be very restrictive, because any attempt to take away our usual rights is considered an exception, something that should not be taken lightly.
Second, since we did not have the four hours officially allocated by the House, I am suggesting that your first step should be to ensure that we have that time. That is why, in my letter, I urged you to refer this important question to the parliamentary committee that deals with these matters, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
That committee is the only one that will be able to rule on this issue. However, you are the primary guardian of the rights of members of this House. You are the one we trust to enforce the standing orders we have established to regulate our debates.
Let us forget the legal aspects. I promise that what I am going to say next will not be in Latin.
Imagine the rules of decorum that exist among neighbours. When we make a rule, for example, that one must not disturb a neighbour in an apartment building, we are building a foundation for our society.
When there are loudspeakers just outside the committee room door and one of the parties is trying to deny parliamentarians their right to debate the substance of an issue, it is your job to look at things from a legal perspective of course, but also from the perspective of good sense. I am very pleased that you were there last night and that you saw what was happening. I would like to thank you once again for finding us another room. I did indicate last night that I would be obliged to proceed this way if my request was not granted.
I would like to raise one last point to help you with your deliberations. This is something you can easily have your aides check.
When I attempted to present the amendment requested by the first nations, and the committee chair refused to let me do so, I tried to come up with a Solomon-style solution.
I said that since the amendment was just three lines long—it was provided in English, but obviously the committee would have both versions to look at—then if we were allowed to vote just on those three lines—this is important for you to hear—we would renounce our right to raise a question of privilege today.
What I am saying is critically important, because in your deliberations, you will be called upon to determine, among other things, whether other solutions were available. You will have to consider whether anything different or additional could have been done during the Standing Committee on Finance's meeting.
I would therefore urge the Speaker and his closest aides to consult the transcript of yesterday's proceedings in fine to see the offer I made. I think my offer should have been accepted. It was made in good faith and would have allowed us to overcome the impasse. We could then have presented our simple amendment. The amendment was just three lines long and would have added schedule 11 to the bill. I will read it:
“First Nations and Harmonized Sales Tax Agreement PVAT exemptions. To ensure conformity with the laws of Canada and further to section 8.3(1) of the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act, any provincial value-added taxes, PVATs, that have been exempted by a participating province shall be exempt under the Excise Tax Act”.
A very simple recorded division could have been taken on those three lines. Several votes were, in fact, held at the end of our parliamentary committee meeting yesterday evening. It would have been elegant and simple, and people would at least have had the opportunity to debate this issue. Instead, a decision was rendered that we cannot accept, because it is an affront to our rights.
That decision clearly states that, even though the House ruled that we had four hours to deliberate on this bill, we would have only three hours and 20 or 25 minutes.
I submit to you once again that if four hours of our deliberation time had been taken away, instead of 30 or 35 minutes, you would have intervened immediately. In the same way, you must intervene now on this question of privilege.
As for my point of order, it is important for you to realize that your aide did not even allow us to make a decision, given the time at which she made her decision.
I sent the amendment at 10:06 yesterday evening, when I made the other amendments that appear in our notice paper today. Three of my amendments were printed. The Standing Orders could not be clearer and do not allow any exceptions. At least, we could not find any.
Our institution is not an office that has a set of powers that can be exercised by a subordinate or a close aide of an office holder. When the Standing Orders state clearly and unequivocally that the office holder himself must exercise a power, no one else can do so in his place.
We are still surprised that we received the following letter from your aide, which is dated today, but in fact was sent yesterday evening:
You have sent the Journals Branch a motion to amend Bill C-62, An Act to amend the Excise Tax Act, for inclusion on the notice paper. The motion in question is beyond the scope of the bill it amends.
The 2009 second edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice explains on page 781: “...the Speaker has ruled out of order a motion in amendment that exceeded the scope of the bill...”
Accordingly, I [first person singular; you are not the individual in question] regret to inform you that, pursuant to the provisions of Standing Order 76.1(2), this motion cannot be included on the notice paper.
You heard correctly. We have an expression where I come from: trying to be someone you're not. In this case, your aide is trying to be you. She is a close aide—no more, no less. She is not the Speaker.
The quotation she gave from page 781 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice is a vague reference to an imprecise situation. Yet this matter concerns a specific schedule and document that were proposed. This means that a ruling must be given on what was proposed and, above all, that it must be given by the only individual authorized to do so, and that is you.
This letter documents what happened, but nowhere does it state that you were the one who gave this ruling. On the contrary, by signing it and using the first person singular, she is clearly stating that it was her ruling.
So we must refer to the Standing Orders to see that no one other than you has that authority. I refer you once again to Standing Order 76.1(2), which clearly states that this power falls to you and you alone.
With all due respect to your closest aides, people with whom we work every day and without whom the work here could not be done, if you want the rules we have set for ourselves to change to make your life and role easier, I would be eager to review these matters with you and the other parties present in this House. However, that is neither here nor there. Currently, the Standing Orders leave no room for exception or ambiguity. You and you alone are charged with reviewing these questions. My rights have been doubly infringed upon, but so have the rights of the first nations. The amendment requested by the representatives of the first nations could not be considered last evening in committee because some of the time that had been allocated by this House was taken away. The amendment cannot even be considered in this House.
For all these reasons, I respectfully submit that it is your duty to rule, first, that this question of privilege is properly worded, that it reflects a prima facie violation of our rights as parliamentarians, and in particular the rights of those who sent you the letter today, and then to rule, in light of the specific situation we find ourselves in, that any ruling or interpretation should be based on context.
The context is constitutional. The context affects the rights of the first nations. A series of extremely important rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada make it mandatory to have real and substantial consultations with first nations on issues like this. As an aside, a lawyer colleague was there last night and she was doing her job quite well. She had to explain to us that she was not a lawyer from the Department of Justice. Only the Department of Justice can act on behalf of the government and present legal opinions. This lawyer was of the opinion that according to the Department of Finance, the rights in question were not covered by Supreme Court rulings. I asked whether there were any opinions, writings or doctrine on that. That was just an opinion given off the cuff last night. I am not questioning the good faith or the competence of the lawyer in question. I am just saying that she was not there to represent the Department of Justice and that is very important to note. Only that department can represent the government when it comes to the interpretation and application of legislation.
Thus, we find ourselves in a unique situation. As I mentioned at the outset, some people have been here longer than others and they are saying that they have never seen a parliamentary committee—as is said here, mistakenly—obliged—and I use that word on purpose, without fear that you will contradict me, since you were there—to stop its work because of the misconduct of a group that was just outside the room and made it impossible to work. By the way, the chair of our committee tried everything, as did the clerk of the Standing Committee on Finance. They met with those in charge from the political party in question and pleaded with them to respect our ability as members to work. To no avail. Finally, at your suggestion, we moved to another room in the basement. Once the microphones were installed and the interpreters in place, we were able to continue. You may verify my calculations, but I believe that we lost 35 minutes.
We never had the full amount of time allocated. We were unable to study the issue of aboriginal rights last night. In addition, because the proposed amendment was not presented, the very issue of aboriginal rights was not and will not be studied here, unless you, personally, rather than your aide, rule on the admissibility.
For all these reasons, I submit that there my privileges as a member of Parliament have been breached. I submit that you must reverse the decision made in your place by Ms. Labrecque-Riel or at least make the decision yourself.
I thank you for your attention and concern. I await a decision that will result in respect for our rights and the rights of aboriginal peoples.